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Monday, August 13, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.
Shaker exhibit at BAM a glorious exhibit of simple, durable goods
By Nancy Worssam
Special to The Seattle Times
Simplicity and integrity define the Shakers' lifestyle as well as their crafts. The current exhibition of 19th-century Shaker items at the Bellevue Arts Museum offers ample evidence of both.
From carefully wrought bentwood boxes to handsome tall chests, the collection highlights the fine craftsmanship and sophisticated, unornamented designs that are the hallmarks of Shaker goods.
In the mid-19th century there were more than 20 Shaker religious communities and 6,000 members. These self-sufficient farmers and craftspeople made their own furniture, clothing, tools, containers and kitchen implements.
Their furnishings, made from beautiful woods rubbed and finished to create glowing surfaces, are marked by clean profiles. All they produced was durable and utilitarian, giving testimony to their motto, "hands to work and hearts to God." Today only one tiny Shaker community remains, in Maine.
The exhibition includes photographs, graphics and a video presentation to explain the history and lifestyle of the Shaker communities, which grew from a small group that arrived in the New World in 1774. Its leader, Mother Ann Lee, led her followers to New York, where they hoped to find religious tolerance and converts.
Shakers lived a frugal life, defined as one of community property, pacifism, equality of the sexes and celibacy. They lived in communal houses divided by gender. Men and women could hold leadership positions. And they were among our earliest environmentalists.
The name "Shakers" comes from their practice of ecstatic dancing, twirling, shaking, shouting and singing during worship. Because of their belief in celibacy, all Shakers are converts. The orphans they sometimes took in had to make a choice at age 18: Become a celibate Shaker or leave.
They were early believers in the concept of form following function. And their crafts certainly had an influence on 20th-century modernists in architecture, home furnishing and design. (Think of Scandinavian modern, or some of Frank Lloyd Wright's concepts.)
Their commitment to elegant simplicity is evident in everything they made. Look carefully at the variety of their tables; enjoy their spare beauty. Note the simple lines of the ladder-back chairs with woven cloth seats. Then look at the wooden weaving rack used to make the cloth strips.
One of the delights of this exhibit is the tool collection. Wooden apple corers and vegetable slicers (precursor to our mandolines) are just two of many labor-saving devices they invented. They also invented the circular saw.
The hand-loomed fabrics from which they made clothes are surprisingly colorful, but the clothing itself is unornamented, including the funeral shroud on exhibit.
Neatly embroidered initials on a pair of handmade stockings suggest that, despite a commitment to community property, some things weren't shared.
The more than 200 items in this exhibition, organized by Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., are from the collection of Faith and Edward Deming Andrews, who collected Shaker objects and artwork for more than 40 years and launched the field of Shaker studies.
This is the definitive collection of these widely admired crafts, well worth a visit.
Nancy Worssam: firstname.lastname@example.org
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